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On movies: 'Catfish' spins out a most unusual tale

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 27, 2010 - The title of "Catfish" is a metaphor, and not a particularly adroit one, introduced near the end of this technically clumsy yet fascinating documentary about social networks and the people who use them. Among other things, the movie is a particularly revealing illustration of that old reporter's dictum, or at least this old reporter's dictum: There is an interesting story in almost everyone as long as you are willing to dig to find it. Whether, in some cases, you should dig is a different question, and one the movie asks, indirectly.

If the above seems obscure, there's a reason. Much - perhaps all - of the effect of "Catfish" comes from the slow emergence of information, and it would be a shame to tell too much of the story.

The film begins with a young New York man named Nev Shulman befriending by snail mail, email, Facebook and eventually by telephone a family in Michigan. The family, according to its Facebook entries and the things they tell Nev, includes an 8-year-old girl Abby, who appears to be a promising young artist, her sexy, flirtatious 19-year-old sister, Megan, and the girls' warmhearted mother, Angela.

As Nev comes to spend more and more time communicating with the family, Nev's filmmaker brother, Ariel Shulman, and his partner, Henry Joost, decide to make a documentary about Nev's relationship to these people in Michigan. Meanwhile, breathless accounts arrive from Michigan about Abby's burgeoning artistic career - she has her own gallery and is selling paintings for thousands of dollars! And Megan and Nev begin exchanging increasingly steamy text messages.

When a few things about the Michigan family don't add up, the filmmakers press Nev to go to Michigan to confront Angela and her kids to get the whole truth. Nev seems to be reluctant to intrude on Angela and her family, but he finally agrees. Nev and the two filmmakers go to Michigan, find Angela, and slowly the real story is revealed.

Some critics have found the revelations that come with the trip to Michigan to be exploitive of the people Nev encounters there. I disagree. True, for a time, it appears that a kind of pseudo-sophisticated big-city snobbery colors the story, but slowly the film peels back layers of illusion and helps us understand what has been going on in Michigan. At the end, if anyone appears in a slightly negative light, it is Nev and the filmmakers. The two Shulmans and Joost are to be complimented for leaving a lot of that sort of interpretation up to the viewer.

The movie has misleadingly been described as a "thriller." There are certainly moments of suspense, but in the end I found "Catfish" to be a very human and painfully revealing look at the ways in which people respond to social media, a deceptively casual-seeming meditation on loneliness and dreams deferred. It may well be the most unusual movie of the year.

Opened Friday, Sept. 24

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

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